So there’s another possible case of a blogger creating a false persona on the web – and this time, not just gender but sex is in play. At Carnal Nation, Monica Shores alleges that Alexa Di Carlo, who chronicles her career as a paid escort at the Real Princess Diaries, is not a sex worker. According to some of the allegations, she may not even be a woman. Quite a few sex workers are outraged at this apparent fakery (for instance Tasty Trixie, Jenny DeMilo, a dancer named Kat, and lots of others, I’m sure – be forewarned that their sites are generally not safe for work, as is Real Princess Diaries). They have at least two main grievances that seem pretty righteous to me: If Alexa is indeed a fake, she is creating fake expectations, too, that at their worst could put sex workers at greater risk. And Alexa uses oodles of erotic photos that aren’t of her, without any attribution.
Now, having never sold any service sexier than food, I’m totally unqualified to judge whether Alexa is credible as a sex worker. However, I’m totally fascinated by how people can play with and fake identities on the Web, and so I started rummaging around in her archives when I first heard about this story (via figleaf) a few days before Christmas.
The first thing I read was a post titled “The History of Sexuality,” since that’s my own turf. Guess what? Alexa also claims to be a graduate student in human sexuality studies at San Francisco State University, aspiring to an academic career. Now that’s an area where I’ve got a clue.
And guess what else? I’m dead sure her academic credentials are fake. I have no interest in outing anyone – I expect people to honor pseudonymity and anonymity – so even if I knew who the “real” real princess was (which I don’t), I wouldn’t be inclined to reveal her name. But as an academic, I feel pretty strongly disinclined to tolerate fraud in my corner of the world.
When I went back after Christmas to look for that “History of Sexuality” post, it had disappeared from her archives. Since then, her whole blog has gone dark, including a very long post in which she defended her authenticity. She has also deleted her MySpace profile (though it – like her blog posts – is still in Google’s cache) and protected her tweets on Twitter.
The very fact that her “History of Sexuality” post disappeared early is suggestive because it contained a lot of detail that can be mapped onto real world correlates. For instance, SFSU really did offer a grad-level History of Sexuality course in fall 2009, which was taught by Prof. Amy Sueyoshi, and its syllabus (freely available online) really did include an assignment matching Alexa’s description of it:
For one of my classes this semester I have to develop my own syllabus for a History of Sexuality class for undergraduate college level students. This has to include a description of the topics and suggested readings (along with justification for those readings) for each.
With that in mind, I’d like your input. Read through this proposed two-semester outline and see if there’s anything else you think should be covered in a History of Sexuality course. I don’t mind you delving a bit into each topic, but don’t get into minutiae about specific thoughts or points of specific discussion within each. Other than that, though, feel free to make any comments you wish about this.
(This and subsequent quotations are from the cached version, so I can’t provide a permanent link, but you can access my pdf of the cached version of History of Sexuality for verification. For as long as it lasts, Google’s cached version is here. Just in case the site ever goes back online, the original URL for the “History of Sexuality” post is here.)
She then includes this list of textbooks:
- Sexualities in History
- The Mythology of Sex
- Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices
- Passion and Power Sexuality in History
- Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others
- Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work
- The Ethical Slut
One of her commenters proposed an obvious addition:
I can’t imagine a course titled History of Sexuality that doesn’t list in its readings The History of Sexuality: An Introduction by Michel Foucault. Of course, this isn’t a history in the traditional sense, but an examination of the construction of Sexuality as a concept, the categorization of sexual behavior, and the proliferation of sexual discourse (primarily as a control/power structure). Having a course with that title will immediately set up expectations for reading Foucault.
Okay, so Foucault is a tough read, and you wouldn’t necessarily want to assign it in an undergrad class unless it was aimed at especially advanced students. But that’s not how Alexa responded:
And you’ve explained why it would not be a central reading assignment in the course itself. Certainly, it’d be discussed, but, as you say, it’s not a historical text in and of itself.
Oops. Anyone who’s actually read Foucault’s History of Sexuality would never dismiss it on these grounds. No, it’s not a traditional history, but it’s conceptually crucial to understanding the history of sexuality. For instance, it was Foucault who first argued that homosexuality is a socially constructed and thoroughly modern category (though other historians have since fleshed out this insight).
In an earlier post, where Alexa listed her recommended books on sexuality, she did include Foucault – but in a way that only undermines her academic credibility:
The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, Michel Foucault. Foucault is difficult to read, so I am only recommending the first of his three books on sexuality. If you can get through this and want to continue reading, feel free to buy the other two. His philosophy is constructed around the assertion that regulation of sexuality is the work of power elites who are seeking to garner and protect their position of social dominance.
Again, no! If a student submitted this précis to me as part of an annotated bibliography, or if she described Foucault’s thesis in this way, I’d have to assume she hadn’t read him. At a minimum, I’d question whether she understood him. The whole point of Foucault’s History of Sexuality is to describe power as decentralized and local in its workings. He does not conceptualize power as exercised in a top-down fashion. Instead, we’re all implicated in the workings of power/knowledge, which are not simply “the work of power elites.” I first read this book the summer before graduate school, and I understood that much. So should anyone who’s already logged a year as a grad student in sexuality – if she’s actually read the book.
But she does at least indicate here that she knows Foucault is difficult. How does she know this? And one thing weighed against my supposition that she hadn’t done the reading: she also picked up on the term “regulation,” which is pretty central to Foucault.
Well, I’m unfortuantely familiar with what students may do when they haven’t done the reading but are desperate to keep up appearances. The worst response? Plagiarize from someone who has read it. I say “worst” because it’s not only unethical, it’s stupid. Professors know how to use the Google, too, you know.
And that’s precisely what Alexa did here. She plagiarized. Here’s Alexa:
His philosophy is constructed around the assertion that regulation of sexuality is the work of power elites who are seeking to garner and protect their position of social dominance.
And here’s its original source, in a New York Times article from June 23, 2001, by Peter Steinfels on books that religious leaders have criticized as harmful:
Ellen Charry, another professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, chose ”The History of Sexuality” by Michel Foucault.
”The effect of this book is to endorse the notion that the regulation of sexuality is the work of power elites who are seeking to garner and protect their position of social dominance,” Professor Charry wrote.
By the way, with all due respect to Professor Charry, I still think it’s a crappy precis for the reasons I described above. Professor Charry doesn’t like Foucault’s embrace of kink, which may explain why she’s not inclined to tease out any of the nuances of his argument.
Now, only after I’d combed through Alexa’s post without any inside information from people at SFSU did I learn through Tasty Trixie’s comment section that one of the other SFSU grad students has a blog, The Sexademic. It’s a smart and interesting blog. Its author, Jessi, confirms both that Foucault is a standard part of the curriculum, and that Alexa is not a student there:
She claimed in her posts to be studying in my graduate program (Sexuality Studies at SF State) and seems to have lifted information from the department profile of a fellow male graduate student.
For the record: there is no way this person is affiliated with my department. She knows a fair amount about sexuality studies but she constructed a syllabus of the History of Sexuality without including writings from Michel Foucault [Thanks Zoey for the cache link to Alexa's syllabus post]. History of Sexuality: An Introduction is one of the first sexual theory texts first year students read. No-one would leave Michel Foucault out of a basic sexuality reading list. This is tantamount to discussing the history of social labor movements without reading Karl Marx. Fail lady, fail.
I don’t know who this person is and the only thing I care about is that she is falsely claiming intellectual territory in Sexuality Studies at my university. Back off. Go fake yourself a life somewhere else.
The Marx comparison is spot on (and wonderfully phrased!). The sexuality studies grad program at SFSU is pretty small, and having been in a similarly sized program, I know how hard it would be to hide a secret this big. Jessi’s own identity is borne out by its website, as is the male student’s. Elsewhere, Jessi makes a persuasive case that her fellow student is essentially being libeled (see the comments in Trixie’s post) with details that again ring very true to an academic reader (“He would rather talk about Judith Butler and structural violence than write about deep-throating.)
Jessi’s post not only provides further confirmation of Alexa’s fakery; it also shows how a fake persona can have real world consequences. Alexa’s charade put a completely innocent male grad student under suspicion. She has also used countless erotic photos on her blog without any attribution – which is one of the things that rightly infuriates other sex workers, because she’s stealing their work. I guess a little academic plagiarism hardly registers when you’re routinely swiping people’s erotic photos to promote yourself.
The plagiarism really seals the deal, but other aspects of Alexa’s proposed syllabus raised my eyebrows, too. Her statement, “I don’t mind you delving a bit into each topic, but don’t get into minutiae about specific thoughts or points of specific discussion within each,” might have just been an attempt to keep comments focused on the big picture. But given that she’s faked at least some of her academic background, it more likely indicates a fear of being caught out.
Her reading list is a curious mix, too. She has three academic titles (Ruth Karras’ Sexuality in Medieval Europe, plus two essay collections, Passion And Power: Sexuality in History and Sexualities in History. The Mythology of Sex is an illustrated history – basically a coffee-table book. The two encyclopedias are completely unsuitable as textbooks, both because they consist of many short entries (duh!) and because the one on prostitution is super-expensive: $164 at Amazon, $225 list price. Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices is affordable but it’s not academic. These are books that might well be in the collection of someone who’s fascinated with sexuality and sex work, but they’re not the kinds of works that an instructor would steer a student toward, and certainly a second-year grad student ought to recognize their unsuitability.
Then there’s the incredibly broad scope of the course itself. In the first week, she proposes covering:
Ancient and Early Cultures Sex from the beginning of recorded time through ancient civilizations, including Mesopotamia, Babylonia, the Roman Empire, Greece, and Egypt. Discussion of gods and goddesses of sex and related subjects. Discussion of Aztecs & polygamy, Mayan and Incan civilizations and incestuous practices.
(This and the following comments all come from the History of Sexuality post again.)
Another commenter, Charlie, notes that this kind of breadth is pedagogically self-defeating, even in a survey class:
It’s not quite clear to me from your description of the assignment- is this supposed to be an examination of all of human sexual history? Can it be a course on some slice or portion of the topic? I don’t think it’s reasonable to try to cover this much material in this much detail. The amount of information that you propose to include, even in a two semester course, is more than most people can absorb, process, or integrate, at least in my experience. While others have said similar things in the comments, I would add that when you’re asking students to explore sexual philosophies that are different from their own, you need to create the room for resistance, debate and exploration. This syllabus is so large and dense that I would expect there to be insufficient time for that. I think you’d do better to narrow the range and have more depth, in order to create room for people to challenge their ideas about what sex is and engage with ways of thinking about sex that are different from what they know.
Although it’s evident that Charlie has a lot more experience with teaching than Alexa does, her response brushes off his very reasonable concern that the course is overly broad:
I think it depends on how in-depth the subject matter is covered. It is, obviously, not intended to be a comprehensive treatment of the totality of human sexual history.
I think the first semester is easily doable, without constraints.
If you’re a graduate student really looking to refine a class assignment, you might want to seriously weigh advice from someone who’s been there, rather than dismissing it.
After I’d already formed this impression, I found that “Charlie” appears to be Dr. Charlie Glickman, who writes at the Good Vibrations blog and works as a sex educator. In a post titled “Who Is Alexa di Carlo?” he says that he took her at face value and provided help on the syllabus assignment, including some email exchanges. But based on her alleged theft of images from a camgirl, he now very much doubts that Alexa is who she says she is. He strikes me as smart, credible, and generous with his time. He also knows Jessi through Good Vibrations, which gives her a few bonus credibility points, too.
So why would someone pretend to be a sex worker? Well, the consensus seems to be that one might do it for the attention or in hopes of a book deal down the road. Certainly Alexa doesn’t seem to have earned any money directly through the blog (I saw no ads). She claimed to have attacted all of her clients through the blog, but that motivation collapses if she wasn’t really a sex worker.
Even more puzzling: Why, oh why, would anyone pretend to be a grad student? Sure, it might give your wanna-be “educational” posts a little more cachet. But for most of us, graduate school is a time of penury. I’m perfectly aware that some grad students choose sex work. I’d say it beats living out of your vehicles – and a recent vehicle-dweller just moved into the rental three doors down from me. Let’s face it – academic credentials don’t give you much of a boost in the blogosphere, especially if your claim to fame is that you host unprotected gang bangs for fun in your spare time. Academic credentials are also tough to fake.
Alexa di Carlo is a plagiarist. I’m be willing to bet my own credibility that she’s not a grad student in human sexuality studies at SFSU, either. As for her motives, your guess is as good as mine. Theories are welcome in comments!
And by the way, if anyone has a problem with my pseudonymity in this context, please drop me a comment. I’m pseudonymous so that my blogging doesn’t show up first when someone Googles me, not because I’m afraid to stand behind my writing. In this case, I realize I’ve made serious allegations and I don’t want them to be undermined by any suspicion about my own bona fides.
Added 12/29/09, 12:20 p.m.: Since this post is getting a bunch of hits from people who obviously aren’t my regular readers, here’s a short run-down on my academic credentials: I hold a Ph.D. in history from Cornell with women’s studies as a minor field, wrote a dissertation on the history of pregnancy and childbirth in early 20th-century Germany, and now teach women’s and gender studies at a public university in southeast Ohio. My graduate work, teaching, and research have all dealt with the history of sexuality.